The OPOL-Fanatics

by contributor · 21 comments

By Christiane Küchler Williams

Hallo – we would like to introduce ourselves… We are the OPOL-Fanatics!

If you have read about some bilingual theories, you have probably come across the term “OPOL” – it is the abbreviation for “One-Parent-One-Language” – and it is the mantra of our family.

We adhere to it religiously, we are diligent in its execution, appear rude and inconsiderate as well as consistent and disciplined in its wake. Its proclamation inspires admiring sounds of approval from some and disbelieving shakes of heads from others, bilingual and monolingual families alike.

It all started fairly simple. We were a couple, German wife, American husband, who decided to raise their children bilingually. At the time we lived in the US (currently we are in England) and since it was an English speaking environment, German would have to be especially nurtured.

Since my husband’s German was not fluent enough at the time to use German as the only home language, we decided on OPOL (even though we were not familiar with the term then). I have to admit that I also did not want my children to hear my husbands accented and sometimes grammatically challenged German, so my tendency towards strict language enforcement was already present at the beginning…

So, son number 1 was born and we were so well established in the Chicago Suburbian German community that I had one German play group and one German music group in contrast to only one American play group. German dominated the house until my husband came home in the evening, which is when I would continue speaking German to the kids, but English to my husband. And he, of course, spoke English with all of us.

Another son was born and the years passed by happily with tolerant American friends and family, who accepted my German-only approach. I had assured everybody that I would never say anything “behind their back” in German and sometimes repeated information or instructions in English – or even better, let my children translate, when it was time for snack or a walk etc. during an American play date.

Already in the early years, strict OPOL resulted in some weird arrangements: Books were strictly segregated into “Papa books” and “Mama Bücher” and no parent would ever cross the line of reading the other language to the child, even though it would have been quite easy.

Certain books of the “I Spy” / “Wimmelbuch” variety could be read or talked about with both parents in their respective language, however I never read “Good Night Moon” and my husband never picked “Die kleine Raupe Nimmersatt”.  As silly as this discipline of not reading your child’s favorite book of the moment to them, if it is in the other language, seems, it prevented my “slide” into English.

One of my biggest fears that I was constantly aware of was the mixing of languages. Under no circumstances did I want to end up like a dear friend of mine who spoke with her older children in such a mixture of German and English that only a person fluent in both could understand.

I believe the biggest brick in the wall that stemmed the flood of English into our house was the rule that only German DVDs could be watched and no commercial American television was allowed. This is the point that most other bilingual parents shake their heads and say they could never do that with their children – however, since my children didn’t know any better, they didn’t realize they were “deprived” of English speaking TV until they were old enough to understand the importance of fostering both languages.

By now we own a lot of DVDs that have both German and English sound tracks and they find it rather amusing to alternate between the two.

When my oldest started preschool, insisting on German got more complicated. All of a sudden he was swamped with English, experienced things in English, learned whole new fields of vocabulary in English… But since it was only 3 hours a day, I was able to counter balance things.

I made sure he learned the ABCs in German first, provided the German equivalents of the new words and tried to not fall into the trap of using English expressions of the preschool terms. I tried to find acceptable German alternatives for things like “Potty Time”, “Play Doh” and “Craft session”.

I even went so far as to make a German version of the “Clean-Up”Song, which he sang enthusiastically at home, so that we could use it. Yes, it was forced at times, but I wasn’t going to let English creep into my German!

Not letting mainstream language words slip into your conversations is the biggest challenge for the OPOL parent who speaks the minority language. It requires discipline and complicates conversations enormously. It is so much easier just to use the majority word, since it is often the one on the tip of your tongue!

You might even find that you can’t remember the correct word in your own language, because it is buried under the other – and that’s pretty embarrassing!

I’ve have had many situations where I used a quick translation, but it wasn’t quite correct for the context. For example talking about baby formula and how it is made of powder, I used the word Puder, which is a correct translation, but not in this context, where it should be Pulver.

Sometimes, quick and direct translations can even change the meaning. So if your children have homework, you translate home + work = Haus + Arbeit, however Hausarbeit is more commonly used as household chores and Hausaufgaben is associated with school homework.

In these situations, you have two choices – you let it slip with the risk of your child remembering the incorrect word or you correct yourself. I generally rephrase with the more appropriate word and since rephrasing is a major method of correcting German in this household, the kids hardly notice.

The older the kids get, the bigger the challenge gets to hang onto German in an English speaking environment – and the more fanatic I become about OPOL.

The language balance in our house has certainly tipped towards English. When son number 1 started school and son number 2 preschool, they switched to speaking English with each other. Yes, it broke my heart, but there was little I could do.

They still speak only German to me, but they struggle more. Now they are both in school 6.5 hours a day, they experience and learn in English and sometimes have to ask “How do I say that in German?”

The little one sometimes lets an English word slip in from time to time, especially when we haven’t been to Germany in a while. At this point, I say “I don’t think that was German you spoke to me” or rephrase and offer the German vocab.

School homework has been tricky, since it is obviously in English, but the English speaker comes home late in the day. So what we have resorted to is that Papa does all the reading homework in the evening before bed. Other homework is done with me.

But sometimes it gets slightly ridiculous. For example: My son reads the math homework text. We talk it through in German, we calculate in German, we formulate the answer in German, then he translates the answer into English and writes it down. Sounds complicated? – You bet it is!

I was so annoyed with the procedure at one point, that I read the text in English, which caused my appalled son to demand that I stop immediately. It is engrained in their brains that I should speak German to them. So much so that they protest, if I speak English – not so much when I speak English at a play date, birthday party or family function to the group, but when I clearly address only them and it is in English.

But I am not complaining. Not in the least. “Mama, sprich Deutsch mit mir” is music to my ears… because it means, I am raising some fine OPOL-Fanatics!

Christiane Küchler Williams is a German university lecturer and writer, currently living in England with her American husband and their two sons. In addition to trying to raise the children bilingually, she can claim to have owned a bilingual parrot and currently a bilingual dog (if he listens at all).

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tess October 5, 2010 at 6:56 am

Thank you for an interesting article. We are also an OPOL-family, Swedish being the minority language spoken here in the US. I find it increasingly hard to maintain the OPOL-policy once the children become older, especially since we cannot return to Sweden as often as we would like due to the distance and the cost. My children are old enough now to not want to be read to, and choose almost only English books to read to themselves. The lack of new interesting material in Swedish makes it even harder. A saviour here has been subscriptions to Swedish childrens/tweens magazines. I have also stopped speaking Swedish to my children among their friends since I started feeling increasingly rude and always hearing the friend ask my child what I was saying. We used to go to a “Swedish school” once a week, but the school disintegrated when the children became older and more busy with other extracurricular activities. My children still meet these children, but they speak English with them. My only saving grace will be the year we will spend in Sweden in two years when my husband has a sabbatical from the University.


2 Rebecca October 5, 2010 at 7:27 am

I felt like you could have written this article about my family. As the minority language parent, it is often very hard to explain to people why you HAVE to be so strict. Thank you for making me feel “normal”!


3 Ingrid October 5, 2010 at 1:19 pm

I feel like your article tells my story, so thank you for putting it into words so articulately. Finally, I have met someone else who is as strict as I am! I have been an OPOL fanatic just like you, speaking German to my daughter here in the U.S. My husband is a Spanish speaker.

The one thing I still wonder about is how to deal with my daughter’s friends or classmates when they ask, “Why don’t you speak English with her?” or even “Can you stop speaking that language and speak in English instead?” Do you ever get questions like that?


4 Yara October 5, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Si, si y si!! My husband speaks English and I speak Spanish. I thought I was strict but you definitely got me beat:) I don’t care where and when I always speak Spanish to my kids and if necessary I’ll translate for others to understand. While my son watches only TV in Spanish when he’s with me he does watch TV in English with his Dad and nanny. My husband supports me a 100% but he also wants to share certain TV shows with him and be able to interact.

We visit Puerto Rico 1-2/year for 1-2 weeks at a time. My son is 2 1/2 and my daughter 10 months. He’s speaking much more English which at times makes me sad and frustrated. I was pretty naive and thought that just speaking Spanish to him all the time was enough. Hopefully we’ll enroll him in a Spanish immersion pre-school in a year.
I’m scared what’s going to happen when he gets older but I need to concentrate on now!


5 Reb October 6, 2010 at 1:07 am

Ingrid, I actually do speak English to all my daughter’s friends. I translate afterwards. But I refuse to speak to my daughter directly in French. I can’t do it and I won’t do it.


6 Jenny October 6, 2010 at 4:09 am

Thank you for sharing your experiences! This is the type of inspiration I need! We live in a monolingual community (also in England) and I’m finding it more and more difficult as my youngest gets older to adhere to our OPOL approach in our family.


7 Natalia Terekhova October 7, 2010 at 11:50 am

I am glad to see such a thorough example of OPOL. It’s too bad that kids did end switching to English once they entered the school system. At that time, did you consider placing them into an immersion school? I understand that now it might be too late, but there are many immersion programs throughout the country and I am pretty sure I have seen a website of a school that offers a German immersion program from Kindergarden through the 8th grade. I think placing the child into immersion program might be the ultimate solution for preventing the dominance of the dominant language.


8 Gemma November 29, 2010 at 5:40 pm

We are strict OPOL parents, too, but I just wanted to make a brief comment about the following paragraph:

“Already in the early years, strict OPOL resulted in some weird arrangements: Books were strictly segregated into “Papa books” and “Mama Bücher” and no parent would ever cross the line of reading the other language to the child, even though it would have been quite easy.”

My husband and I are doing the same with our daughters books: we separated them into “Daddy’s (Japanese) books” and “Mummy’s (Italian) book”. However, very recently, I’ve realised that many Japanese books that my husband read to our toddler have many words and expressions that I’ve never found in Italian books. So I started to think that it would be useful to read some of ‘daddy’s books’ in Italian so that our toddler can, for example, tell her Italian grandparents or friends what that Japanese book is about. It looks like it’s working! Her Italian vocabulary has expanded and she can now tell me in Italian everything that her dad reads to her in Japanese. And the good thing (for me) is that she’s now very eager to tell me in Italian or to learn in Italian everything she experiences in Japanese.


9 Dominick March 12, 2014 at 5:51 pm

My son chooses a few books that seem to be his favorite books. He knows that I speak both Italian and English, so he often hands me English books to read even though I only ever speak to him in Italian. What do I do? I “interpret” on the fly. Something that can be very challenging indeed!


10 Ingrid December 1, 2010 at 1:01 pm

The technique you have employed is called ‘Reformulating’ and it’s used widely in language classes as a way for people to practice thinking and speaking in a new language. As you’ve noticed, vocabulary is boosted. It’s wonderful how you came upon that technique naturally and I’m sure it will serve your child very well!


11 Liliana August 24, 2011 at 7:36 pm

Love the article! We are rising two trilingual kids. I speak to our children only in my language, husband speaks to them in his, and the community takes care of their English (we live in USA, they have been at daycare since 9 weeks old).

I am a big OPOL fan. The only problem is that my husband has never encouraged our kids to respond to him in his language. They understand 100% of what he says, they even translate for me, but they talk to him in my language. I am very happy they are so good in my language (they are 4 and 3 years old, and so far they speak in my language to each other), but at the same time I am sad that they are not being nurtured in their dad’s language (that I do not speak). I hope that one day, they will just start using their passive language if they are in right the situation.

At this moment though, we are debating how to teach them to read English and math. Since I spend a little more time with our kids than my husband, then the question is which language I should use when teaching them math: mine or English.
I am all for following your steps and translating it to my language, solve it in my language and then translating it back in to English. My husband thinks that they will better at school if they think Math in English. What do you think?

Also, I am not sure whether I should or not teach them to read in English at all (since I have a very heavy accent).




12 Trilingual+2 January 8, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Hi! It doesnt matter what language you teach maths in, although I would recommend using yours. I am trilingual and can “think” maths in all hree languages, due to my mother having to help with homework in her languge, english at school, and father tongue at my current school. Be aware that commas and decimals, and multiplicaton signs may vary.


13 Beth Ortuño March 4, 2013 at 9:32 am

Liliana, according to the administration at the dual-language school where my son goes, as well as the research I’ve been reading, it’s best to teach the very first steps of reading in whatever language the child himself/herself is most comfortable. You might think you’d like to emphasize one language or another, but actually the fastest and deepest skill development will come if you start from where they are strongest, and then add in the other language(s) as you go along. At the dual-language school they are teaching all subjects in both languages, but when they evaluate the child to see if he is on grade level or needs extra help, they are doing that in the language they identified at the beginning that was where the child was stronger starting out.
Basically, think of it as the child learning to build towers of building-blocks. You want them to learn first with the language where they themselves have the most shapes, colors and sizes of blocks in their own minds. After the child starts understanding the most fundamental concepts, the rules how blocks generally go together to build something, then they can take hold of any shape or color blocks and figure out how to get them to go together.
I think this is true. My son arrived at pre-K knowing the alphabet really quite well in one language, even beginning to read a few words, and in the other language could not even consistently identify the letters of the alphabet much less even begin to sound out any words. But when school started he quickly got up to speed in the other language and learned the complete alphabet including all the different sounds (hard/soft etc.) for each letter, and started sounding out some words he saw in books or while out & about in the neighborhood, within about two weeks. It was freaky.
Same thing happened with mathematics. It took him forever to learn HOW to write all the numbers and count out lound to one hundred (you put the zero here, you replace this number with the next one up, until you get to nine and then you do a zero again, etc.) but once he grasped that, then it was literally a matter of DAYS later he could write and count to one hundred in either language. Again with simple calculations like 2+2 = 4. The concept took time, but then he just quickly learned and inserted other words for a concept he already understood.


14 Giovanna September 5, 2011 at 1:23 pm

I fully recognize myself in your description!!! I’m doing exactely the same thing as you are and I feel relieved that you are satisfied with it. My children are only 6 and 4 and I’m starting now to struggle with literacy and school. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that the more I do now the better it will work in the future, when the children will be outside my influence sphere…. It’s difficoult, indeed, it’s actually a full time work, but think it’s worth it!


15 Dominick March 12, 2014 at 7:55 pm

vorrei sapere quali sono i tuoi progetti per insegnarli a leggere in italiano? fra più o meno 4 anni mi troverò nella stessa situazione…


16 Ellen December 22, 2011 at 12:23 am

This message is to encourage ALL of you to stick with OPOL even when other people are around who don’t understand. It is not rude, it is YOUR language. Iam French and grew up in France but my mother who is English spoke to me in English at all times. I was sometimes embarassed by people who would stare at us in stores etc. And when my friends didn’t understand, I would translate, not her. I also often went to London, during school holidays, to see my grand parents. This was always beneficial. Now I am trully bilingual, a native speaker of both French and English.
I have 2 daughters, and my husband and I are using OPOL. He is Chinese and we live in Taiwan. So they go to a local school and he helps them with their Chinese homework. Other than homework, he speaks to them and me in English, I speak to them in French. And voila! They are tri-lingual, even though French is by far their weakest language. We try to go to France once a year, and next year, in May and June , they will finish their school year in France, and then spend the summer there.
So hang in there, keep at it, stick to OPOL, it is worth it and when they are adults, they will thank you. Even sooner, perhaps when they start bringing home all those great grades in Spanish, French or Portuguese or whatever your language is!!!


17 Kira February 20, 2013 at 4:15 pm


A very interesting and relevant post. My husband and I have been using the OPOL technique since the birth of my eldest, a 2 1/2 year-old little girl (we also have a 6-month-old son). My daughter has been going to a French-language daycare since she was 11 months old, 3 days a week, for about 8 hours a day. Although she understands everything I say to her in English, she answers in French most of the time, and I vey often have to prompt her to say things in English. My husband also speaks French to her, he and I speak French to each other (I grew up bilingual so have no accent in either French or English), and we live in a French-speaking city. I’m trying to find opportunities to expose her to more English and realize I have to be more vigilant in applying my English-only policy when she is with me (books, songs, TV shows). Christiane’s strict approach is just the thing I will be trying from now on…


18 Beth Ortuño March 4, 2013 at 8:56 am

How sweet: “Mama, sprich Deutsch mit mir”! We were doing OPOL and then decided to go even farther, switching to mostly-ML@H (everyone speaking the minority language most of time, including me as much as possible!) So I was late getting started on speaking the minority language toward my son myself, and he always resisted me doing it. He never stopped protesting! I even wondered sometimes whether I was doing right, when the words coming off my own tongue sounded not quite right to my own ears. But last year when we were visiting my family (everyone speaking English only) and his father wasn’t with us, I was speaking to him in English, and instead of liking it, after a few days he said to me at bedtime “Mommy, hablame en español”. It honestly did bring tears to my eyes. This language is the language that feels like home for him. So reassuring for me since I got off to an odd start!


19 Beth Ortuño March 4, 2013 at 8:58 am

*(Spanish is the language that feels like home for him)


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